PISA Results and Their Implications for Gifted Education

Every three years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) gives an assessment called the Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA. It was last given in 2009 and the results were released this month. The tests are given to 15 year olds in 65 countries. This time, there were the usual high performers – Finland, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Canada. However, there was one notable surprise … Shanghai, China … and a newcomer at that! More on that later.

There are many lessons to be learned from the results of PISA. First, learning how to take a test only teaches a student how to take a test. Secondly, a society does not become better educated or even smarter simply by becoming better test takers. Quite the opposite is true. The PISA assessments are subjective. Knowing how to completely fill in the bubble (O) with a No. 2 pencil is not the skill being tested. Students must demonstrate an understanding of the material. The reasoning behind this test is that it predicts how well prepared a student is to face the challenges of the workplace as well as in life. Studies have shown that without mastery of critical thinking skills by age 15, it is doubtful the student will ever be able to acquire these skills. Thus, the value of critical thinking becomes priceless.

Although it was expected, the United States’ mediocre performance was particularly disappointing after almost 10 years of the now infamous No Child Left Behind legislation which was suppose to raise scores on standardized tests. So what happened? What could account for such a sharp contrast in scores between the U.S. and other countries? The U.S. spends more money on per pupil expenditures than almost any other country in the world. U.S. schools that did not make Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) were cited by the Department of Education and were at risk of loosing federal funding.

So, what are the implications for gifted education? Why should gifted parents care about the PISA results? Well, for starters, these assessments … whichever country you live in … can be used as a powerful argument for investment in gifted education. One only need to look at the results from Shanghai. It was interesting that some in the U.S. press immediately accused the Chinese of cheating. Really? And did the 25 other countries who did better than the United States overall also cheat their way to the top? Doubtful on its face. Irrelevant at best.

In terms of gifted education, Shanghai made the extraordinary decision to create 100 gifted high schools in its city. Let me reiterate … the Chinese decided to support their most highly-abled students by creating schools designed especially for them. By ability-grouping gifted students, they could provide appropriate educational opportunities for these students. And guess what? It would appear to be working. Furthermore, experts from the U.S. who have been in Shanghai for the past several years report that Chinese authorities will be duplicating these results in many other cities in China before the end of the next decade. To those who say that the U.S. could duplicate the same results – it’s not a matter of can but will they do so. The U.S. cannot support gifted students in the same way as China if they don’t have a standard identification process in place. For all the reasons stated many times in this blog, America will not improve its PISA rankings until it has a major attitude adjustment on how it views and supports its gifted student population at the federal level.

Here is one more sobering fact to consider for Americans – where have many of the world’s top performers come to learn about gifted education? In just the past two years, many countries have sent delegations of teachers and administrators to U.S. universities to learn about just that. So what is wrong with this picture?

It is time to re-think how we advocate for gifted children. Parents must think beyond their local school district to assure sustainable progress in the area of gifted education. In the upcoming months, information will be provided on this blog about how to become a part of this new movement without being overwhelmed in the process. As we approach the new year, let us make a commitment to work together to make a greater impact on the lives of gifted children all over the world; and insure that our own children are better served!


  1. Again, an excellent post and one well worth taking heed of... Love reading your blog!!!

  2. "Parents must think beyond their local school district to assure sustainable progress in the area of gifted education." This is spot on and the only way we'll get real change!
    Great post!

  3. My analysis of PISA 2009 - at http://giftedphoenix.wordpress.com/tag/pisa/ - suggests that the overall picture for the US is not straightforward:

    - in terms of overall average performance, the US is moving in the right direction (with substantial increases in average scores on maths and science since 2006 and some improvement in rankings as a result). The US rank in reading - for which there is no 2006 comparator - is significantly higher than the ranking in both maths and science;

    - when we look only at high achievers, we see that there has been a significant immprovement since PISA 2006 in maths at level 6 and level 5+. However, the science results at these higher levels have remained broadly stable while (as we have seen) average scores have increased substantively. The US is performing significantly above the average across all OECD countries in reading, slightly above the average in science and significantly below the average in maths.

    This would suggest that the US needs to concentrate on:

    - ensuring that its high achievers in science continue to improve at the same rate as all achievers
    - improving across the board in maths, ensuring that all achievers, including high achievers, reach at least OECD average performance
    - maintain and if possible continue to improve an already strong performance in reading

    The US - and indeed the UK - has much to learn from those countries with the best PISA results for high achievers, but close analysis shows that several of these countries also have significant issues they need to address.

    Shanghai's performance is a wake-up call to many of those countries too!


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